Diversity and Democracy

Building Civic Capacities: Engaging Adult Students in Community Problem-Solving and Critical Reflection Online

In A Crucible Moment, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Engagement calls upon institutions of higher learning to develop civic capacities and commitments, “not the least of which is working with others to co-create more vibrant communities” (2012, 6). At DePaul University, this call has special resonance in the context of the School for New Learning (SNL), founded more than forty years ago to individualize the educational pathways of undergraduates who are at least twenty-four years old. Adult students returning to college are looking for opportunities to apply what they learn in the classroom to their personal, professional, and civic lives. But their civic goals and impulses are often buried under the weight of multiple responsibilities as workers, parents, and students. SNL is seeking ways to help students unearth their inclinations and develop skills for building equitable and vibrant communities. 

Active Citizens Course

In 1972, DePaul was one of the first universities to establish a separate college for adults, responding to a growing population of nontraditional students in higher education by pioneering a competence-based approach to learning. In 2013, SNL added a required competence on civic engagement to its curriculum. Students can demonstrate the civic engagement competence by taking an online or on-campus course at any point during their degree-seeking careers, or by articulating learning from their own community-based experiences for prior learning credit. About one-third of SNL undergraduates complete the civic engagement competence by taking an online course called Active Citizens.

Active Citizens draws upon the work of adult-learning theorists (see Mezirow 2000; Keeton, Sheckley, and Griggs 2002) who have advised educators to design learning experiences around “events that directly engage learners in dealing with genuine problems or situations, while reflecting critically upon these experiences in interaction with others” (Marienau and Reed 2008, 62; italics in original). The course encourages students to engage in their communities while reflecting online. Readings and assignments develop students’ understanding of the role of citizens in a democracy and the specific problem of inequality in our nation.

Promoting Civic Engagement

In Active Citizens, students first reflect upon their past experiences with civic engagement in order to articulate lessons learned and identify the civic work they find most compelling. Based on these reflections, students design and embark upon projects in their communities. While some students take on ambitious projects—for example, establishing new programs—most start with small volunteer efforts. Many students realize that they have been held back by their sense that such small steps aren’t worth taking, since social problems are so daunting. They find instead that one step leads to another, and that these steps can eventually result in institutional impact.

For example, a student who had volunteered for her church’s food pantry found that after the holiday giving peak, the pantry never had enough food to meet community needs. She approached the parish school principal, who agreed to a food drive, and set up a donation box in each classroom. Teachers encouraged friendly competition between classes, and when food had been donated, the DePaul student asked if eighth-grade students—who were themselves looking for a service project—could help stock the pantry. The experience was so meaningful that the school made the drive an annual event, and eighth-grade students now work at the pantry on a regular basis.

Prompting Critical Reflection

Critical reflection plays an essential role not only in students’ selection of projects, but also in their course learning outcomes. Online discussions promote reflection on course concepts. For example, students participate in an online role-playing exercise in which they adopt the perspectives of individuals of different socioeconomic statuses depicted in a documentary about the effects of inequality on health. They also participate in an online debate on the social responsibilities of corporations. Students grapple with the differences between volunteer efforts designed to provide comfort to individuals and activism that addresses the systems perpetuating inequality. The instructor facilitates all discussions and assesses participation using a rubric to evaluate students’ responsiveness to each other’s ideas and their integration of course concepts into their reflections.

Students also engage in written reflection throughout the course, and their writing suggests powerful lessons learned about civic change. In her final reflective essay, the student who arranged the food drive drew upon course readings to describe her project’s outcomes. She wrote:

[Our town] is a fairly affluent community, and most … children are not touched personally by poverty. Rogat-Loeb (2010) discussed this issue as an obstacle to civic engagement when he says ‘Our propensity is to render certain kinds of people or certain communities invisible, even expendable, so we don’t have to deal with their lives’ (p. 96). It is important to get our youth involved at a young age … so they can see that their civic engagement will have a positive impact on the people living in their community.

Another student, who advocated for an equitable state budget by organizing a letter-writing campaign in her apartment complex, wrote that she “learned to start small, and that ‘the best way to get involved in social change is one day at a time’ (Rogat-Loeb, 2010, p. 64). My project was small in comparison to what needs to be accomplished … but if I waited to participate and become engaged, the budget process would proceed without my voice being heard.”

Building toward Community-Engaged Signature Work

The SNL curriculum was designed to build adults’ capacity to apply knowledge to their professional, personal, and community lives. Students develop this capability by following a pathway that begins with an Independent Learning Seminar, where students identify their significant prior learning. Students then travel through a series of skill-building courses (on writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and research) and complete a liberal-learning course called Advanced Elective, where they consider a problem from at least two approaches. Finally, students complete an Advanced Project requirement, through which they address problems of concern to them in their professional lives.

The civic engagement competence represents an early step in this pathway. As such, it enables adults to recognize that knowledge can be applied to address public as well as personal and professional challenges in their lives. Early experiences involving civic action can inspire and prepare students—especially those who are working in, or hoping to transition into, the nonprofit realm—to accomplish significant projects with organizations or community partners in their final capstones.


Educators working with adult students are challenged by their students’ busy lives to create events that hone civic capacities. At DePaul’s School for New Learning, we have used online discussion to promote critical reflection as students work with others in their communities to address local problems. Studies have shown that students of any age who take courses that include civic learning and service are more likely to persist toward degree completion (Reed et al. 2015). Equally meaningful is the personal value that students derive from taking even small steps toward creating vibrant communities.


Keeton, Morris T., Barry G. Sheckley, and Joan Krejci Griggs. 2002. Effectiveness and Efficiency in Higher Education for Adults: A Guide for Fostering Learning. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Marienau, Catherine, and Susan C. Reed. 2008. “Educator as Designer: Balancing Multiple Teaching Perspectives in the Design of Community Based Learning for Adults.” In Linking Adults with Community: Promoting Civic Engagement through Community Based Learning, edited by Susan C. Reed and Catherine Marineau. New Directions in Adult and Continuing Education, No. 118. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, Jack. 2000. Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theme in Progress. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Reed, Susan C., Helen Rosenberg, Anne Statham, and Howard Rosing. 2015. “The Effect of Community Service Learning on Undergraduate Persistence in Three Institutional Contexts.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 21 (2): 22–36.

Rogat-Loeb, Paul. 2010. Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Susan C. Reed is associate professor at the School for New Learning, DePaul University.

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